What’s In A Name?

An aquaintance of mine recently sired a child.

“What did you name it?” I inquired when he told me the news.

“August,” said he.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked.

There was a pause. “A boy,” he said. “August is a boy’s name.”

I shrugged. “I’ve never heard of anyone being named August, so how would I know?” I said. “Besides, almost all calendar names belong to girls. April. June. Summer. Arbor Day.”

“August is a boy’s name,” he reiterated.

A few days later I was at my gym, walking down the hallway to the locker room. The walls of the hall are covered with pictures of the staff, and you have no choice but to ogle them because everyone is attractive and fit. Each photo has the name of the employee at the bottom; one, of a lovely young lady, said “AUGUST.”

I’ve noticed that picture on every visit to the gym since, and each time I resolve to write my buddy and taunt him about his son’s androgynous name. But as my attention span is three minutes and the drive back my office is five, it always slipped my mind before I again had access to Gmail .

Oh, well … it’s probably best that I never did. Today, glancing at the photo, I noticed for the first time that there were tiny words both above and below “AUGUST,” reading, respectively, “Employee Of The Month For” and “Nicole.”

Captain Retcon

I’ve finally discovered my superpower. It wasn’t readily apparent, since it alters the entire space/time continuum every time it is activated and essentially erases all traces of its own existence. But I think I have its number.

Here’s how it works:

  1. I come up with a great idea;
  2. My power makes that thing a reality.

This would pretty much make me the most powerful man in the universe, were it not for one catch: my power assigns ownership of this fabulous thing I have conjured into existence to someone else. And it even goes so far as to alter history so that this thing, whatever it might be, has been around for some time.

I should have realized all this back when I came up with My Big Fat Geek Wedding, an idea so ingenious that it was inconceivable anyone could have thunk it up first. But I just dismissed that as a fluke. Recently, though, the evidence has been mounting. Last week, for instance, I witnessed a friend open a bottle of beer with his wedding ring. “That’s pretty cool,” I said. “But you know what would even cooler? If someone invented a ring with a bottleopener built into it. The cool part would be if the inventor was me, and I made a million dollars for doing it.”

And then, a few days later, I was at a stoplight in the middle of a bike ride, and happened to look down:

Okay, see: that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Every great idea of mine is retroactively invented.

Oh well. Even though I won’t personally profit, I guess I can still use my powers for good. For instance, here’s a great idea I just now thought up: three Star Wars prequel films that don’t totally suck.

Woohoo, I’m going to go rent them again now! This time they’re going to be awesome!!

Update: It appears that my powers do, in fact, have limits.

Irrational Exuberance

Things about which I have become unexpectedly enthusiastic:

Typing of the Dead: Though a lifelong and perhaps intractable hunt-and-peck typist, I occasionally resolve to teach myself touch-typing once and for all; it was during one of these misguided bouts of self-improvement that I picked up The Typing of the Dead. I don’t know what idiot at Take2 Interactive thought that combining an ultra-violent zombie-killing bloodfest with an “edutainment” typing tutorial was a good idea, but I hope he was well-compensated because this is pretty much the best stupid game ever. It’s exactly the same as the popular House of the Dead shoot-em-up, but you enter the infested residence armed with a keyboard instead of a pistol and blow the monsters into gibblets by typing the words and phrases flashed on the screen. So dumb, but I can’t stop playing.

Bitter:Sweet: I can’t listen to The Mating Game, the first single from Bitter:Sweet’s debut album, and not wish I were wearing a tuxedo, sipping a martini, and carrying a Walther PPK in a shoulder holster. And that song is no abberation, the whole album is steeped in that frosty, lounge sound (listen to “Dirty Laundry” if you need further proof). Something incredible will have to come out in the next four months to prevent this from being my favorite album of the year. And hey, Seattlites: they’re coming to Bumbershoot.

Pandora Internet Radio: Here’s how Pandora works. You tell it an artist or song you like; it pulls tracks with similar styles from its database, adds them to your playlist, and streams the feed to you as a customized radio station. I’d dabbled with Pandora a few times in the past but never really saw the point: why not just listen to a radio station you enjoy instead of building one from scratch? But then I plugged the aforementioned Bitter:Sweet in there and discovered a host of similar bands. It’s more of a super-sophisticated recommendation engine than a radio station, but I’ve found an astounding amount of great music using it. If you decide to register, you check out my dy Mix.

Chow Mein: Did I somehow never eat chow mein my first 34 years of life? It was like a revelation when I had it a few months ago, and I’ve been shoveling it into my maw non-stop ever since.

The Best of Youth: Netflix was insistent in suggesting The Best of Youth, putting a shooting star aside the title and giving it permanent slot atop my recommendation page. I was skeptical: you see my five star ratings for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Barton Fink” and think I’m going to enjoy a six-hour Italian soap opera? I eventually ordered the film just to get Netflix to shut up about it, and, oh my, it’s sublime. Covering over 40 years in the life of a single family, this is one of the most robust and rewarding DVDs I’ve watched in a spell.

Brash Machine

My local ATM has become aggressively informal. At first it was just small things, like saying “Sure” and “No, thanks” instead of “yes” and “no” when asking if I want a receipt. But now it’s completely out of control. Now it’s all, “Howdie-ho, neighbor! Hot enough for ya? Well golly gee willikers, what can I do you for?”

Obviously some bank honcho thinks that patrons will respond favorably to this folksy, conversational style, but I find it repellant. I don’t even like it when actual-human colleagues call me “Matt,” so I don’t really need a freakin’ machine chumming up to me like we’ve just spent the evening polishing off a half-rack of Coors.

And it seems to be worse every time I go there. At this point, pretty much every question and menu option has been meticulously phrased to be as laid-back as possible, and they’ve even revised some of the older, breezy responses to make them more casual. God knows where it will end.


Mold In The White House

Speaking of Phillip K. Dick

When it was released in 2002, Minority Report was interpreted by some as an indictment of George Bush’s doctrine of preemption, which allowed the US to detain persons and attack nations on mere suspicions.

In anticipation of the film, I bought The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories, and was surprised to find that the titular story was not alone in predicting the foibles of the Bush administration. In fact, the story immediately preceding The Minority Report was so eerily reminiscent that I kept waiting for Cheney to stroll into the scene.

The Mold of Yancy, despite the title, has nothing to do with fungi. Terran agent Taverner is dispatched to Callisto to investigate the political situation when computer analysis shows the Callistian society inching toward totalitarianism. Upon arrival, Taverner initially believes that the political assessment is incorrect, as he can find no overt signs of repression. Then he learns of John Edward Yancy.

Every evening Yancy takes to the airwaves, treating the Callistotes to charming little homilies and sage advice in his short, televised spots. “A kind of home-spun philosopher,” one person describes him. “Totally ordinary man … A sort of talking almanac. Pithy sayings on every topic. Wise old saws: how to cure a chest cold. What the trouble is back on Terra.” Though supposedly unaffiliated with the government or the church, Yancy is admired by most inhabitants of the moon with an ardor that borders on reverence.

Taverner does a little poking around, and, upon reviewing the tapes of Yancy’s broadcasts, discovers something interesting: despite all his talking, Yancy almost never says anything:

Yancy had definite opinions on everything … or mere they so definite? A strange suspicion was growing in [Taverner]. On some topics, yes. On minor issues, Yancy had exact rules, specific maxims drawn from mankind’s rich storehouse of folklore. But major philosophical and political issues were something else again.

Getting out one of the many tapes listed under War, Taverner ran it through at random.

“… I’m against war,” Yancy pronounced angrily … “[But] I feel a planet must be strong. We must not surrender ourselves meekly … weakness invites attack and fosters aggression. By being weak we promote war. We must gird ourselves and protect those we love. With all my heart and soul I’m against useless wars; but I say again, as I’ve said many times before, a man must come forward and fight a just war. He must not shrink from his responsibility. War is a terrible thing. But sometimes we must… ”

As he restored the tape, Taverner wondered just what the hell Yancy had said. What were his views on war? They took up a hundred separate reels of tape; Yancy was always ready to hold forth on such vital and grandiose subjects as War, the Planet, God, Taxation. But did he say anything?

A cold chill crawled up Taverner’s spine. On specific -and trivial – items there were absolute opinions: dogs are better than cats, grapefruit is too sour without a dash of sugar, it’s good to get up early in the morning, too much drinking is bad. But on big topics … an empty vacuum, filled with the vacant roll of high-sounding phrases. A public that agreed with Yancy on war and taxes and God and planet agreed with absolutely nothing. And with everything.

Taverner suspects that Yancy is more than just a freelance philosopher. “Nobody [is] as harmless and vapid as John Edward Yancy,” he think, and delves deeper into the mystery. Sure enough, an inside source named Sipling soon gives him the straight dope: Yancy is completely computer generated, a fictitious figurehead created by the authorities.

“By authorities, you mean the governing council?”

Sipling laughed sharply. “I mean the trading syndicates that own this moon: lock, stock, and barrel.”

Why would the big corporations go through the trouble to foisting a charismatic but shallow leader on the people? Well, it seems that they want to start to war with a distant land, in the hopes of acquiring the other’s resources. “To start a war they have to get the public lined up,” Sipling continues. “Actually, the people here have nothing to gain. A war would wipe out all the small operators – it would concentrate power in fewer hands – and they’re few enough already. To get the eighty million people here behind the war, they need an indifferent, sheep-like public. And they’re getting that.”


Here’s a quotation from another Yancy speech:

“I realize how lucky we are to be alive, and to have … the fine cities and houses, all the things God has given us to enjoy. But we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose these things. There are forces that could weaken us. Everything we’ve built up for our loved ones, for our children, could be taken away from us overnight. We must learn to be vigilant. We must protect our liberties, our possessions, our way of life. If we become divided, and fall to bickering among each other, we will be easy prey for our enemies.”

Psyche! That text was actually taken from Bush’s speech on Monday.

Well, no, that quotation really did come from The Mold of Yancy. But come on: you thought that was Bush for a second, there, didn’t you?

“I’ve come to see the essential key to the Yancy character,” says Sipling near the end of the story.

“The key to the new type of person we’re growing, here. It’s simple. It’s the element that makes that person malleable enough to be led around. All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness. Every part of his ideology is diluted: nothing excessive. We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs . . . you’ve noticed that. Wherever possible we’ve cancelled attitudes out, left the person apolitical. Without a viewpoint.”

“Sure,” Taverner agreed. “But with the illusion of a viewpoint.”

“All aspects of personality have to be controlled; we want the total person. So a specific attitude has to exist for each concrete question. In every respect, our rule is: Yancy believes the least troublesome possibility. The most shallow. The most simple, effortless view, the view that fails to go deep enough to stir any real thought.”

When Taverner and Sipling set out to undermine the Yancy project, and they do so by injecting some complexity into his speeches. “What if Yancy sat down in the evening with his wife and grandson, and played a nice lively six-hour game of Kriegspiel?” Sipling says, as they plan their sabotage. “Suppose his favorite books – instead of being western gun-toting anachronisms – were Greek tragedy? Suppose his favorite piece of music was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, not My Old Kentucky Home?”

In related news, Bush was seen reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger a few weeks ago, and recently spoke of the Iraq war as “straining the psyche of our country.” Maybe we’ve got a Sipling in the White House, at long last.

You can read The Mold of Yancy here.

Ice Queen

The Queen rubs the top of her head and makes the ow-that-hurts air-through-the-teeth noise.

Me: What’s wrong?

Q: I have a bump on my head and it’s getting bigger. Feel it.

{I engage in some impromptu phrenology}

M: Wow, that’s a good ‘un. How did you get it?

Q: I got hit by a block of ice.

M: Did it knock you out cold?

Q: It’s not funny.

M: Sorry. What happened?

Q: I wanted to pack the cooler for our weekend camping trip, so I went to the grocery store and bought a big block of ice. As I was walking back to the car I tumbled — honestly I don’t know what happened, I just suddenly went ass over teakettle — and when I threw my arms up the ice flew into the air. Then, after I landed on my butt, the block of ice came down and hit me on the top of the head.


Q: What?

M: Nothing, I’m just waiting for the part of the story that’s not funny.

Threat Level Bershon

According to an article in today’s New York Times “behavior detection officers” at airports are now keeping an eye out for persons wearing the following expressions:

In other words, in addition to having to forgo your iPod and hair gel you will now be required to check in your teen prior to boarding.

I understand they’ve carved out a little space for the youngsters down in the cargo hold, where they will be serving Hi-C and showing The Apple Dumpling Gang. Oh, that sounds delightful!